FOIA Advisory Committee Meeting: January 27, 2015

In December 2013, the White House committed to establish a FOIA Modernization Advisory committee in its second open government National Action Plan. The committee includes FOIA experts from inside and outside government and includes subcommittees examining proactive disclosure, FOIA fees and fee categories, and oversight. The committee holds regular public meetings. On January 27th, each subcommittee reported on its activities and future plans. Video and a transcript of this meeting (and past meetings) will be available on the National Archive and Records Administration’s webpage.

The proactive disclosure subcommittee discussed its work to identify high value information for to make publicly available without the need for a FOIA request. This has included discussions with OTG partner Reinvent Albany, who published a report analyzing the use FOIA logs to identify data sets for proactive release. The subcommittee also discussed the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of its FOIAonline records to identify common words, themes, and terms that can indicate high public interest in particular documents. The subcommittee hopes to expand this project to agencies with larger and deeper FOIA datasets. The subcommittee is also exploring ways to increase proactive disclosure and ensure the records are accessible and compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. The full presentation is available on the OGIS website.

The fee subcommittee conducted research on several countries’ approach to fees and fee waivers. Some include a low flat fee regardless of the requester, and other waived fees for all non-commercial requesters. There was some dispute as to whether agencies used fees to encourage requesters to narrow their requests. The subcommittee also discussed the use of fees in relation to frequent, high-volume requesters. Many nations refer to these requesters as “vexatious,” but for US FOIA purposes, the subcommittee suggested the term “extreme” requesters be used. The fees subcommittee plans to survey FOIA officers about fees and fee categories. A recap of the subcommittee’s discussion is available here.

The oversight and accountability subcommittee has conducted research on the government reports related to FOIA programs. The subcommittee plans to post a round up of these reports, approximately 50 in all. The subcommittee also intends to survey FOIA officers on public liaison’s training and role. The subcommittee will work with the fee subcommittee in this survey. The subcommittee is also exploring FOIA litigation costs, and a potential review of the government’s approach to litigating FOIA cases. The last review occurred in the early 1990s, and resulted in the government deciding not to contest FOIA disclosure in a number of cases The oversight subcommittee is coordinating with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) in this effort.

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